Wondering how to help your preschooler process death? Or need to explain death to a toddler? We hope you don’t need this information- we really, really hope not- but if you do, we’ve got some ideas about how you explain death to your kids.
2017 was a tough year in the KoeFoe house. My husband’s uncle passed away from terminal cancer. My husband’s grandma passed away from complications from surgery. And then my Nana….just…..passed away. Wave after wave of grief hit us, but seemed to miss our children, who weren’t close to these family members. Until Nana.
Every Tuesday night, since before our son was born, we had Taco Tuesday’s at Nana’s. We ate, watched Jeopardy, the kids did somersaults, sang into microphones, performed and were given chocolate and ice cream and cookies, oh my! At 93 years old, Nana even “babysat” Evie (with the help of her home health nurse) every Friday for a couple hours. Nana was a constant fixture in our lives, until one day, she wasn’t.
We knew we had to help our preschoolers process her death, but didn’t know quite how. Izzie, at 8 months was too young to know anything was going on. Evie, at 2 years, knew something was up, but certainly couldn’t comprehend.
But Cole? Cole, we found, was a wise – albeit brand new – 4 year old. He had questions, and we didn’t always know the answers.
When the end was eminent, I remember sitting with Nana. Tears in my eyes, she told me that crying was okay, that she was going to be fine, that this was God’s plan. I told her, “I know it is….I just don’t know what I’m supposed to tell Cole and Evie.” My pain was so profoundly compacted by the idea that I would also have to manage their loss, that at times it felt suffocating.
I’m not sure what we did was best, or right, but here are some tips for helping preschoolers process death. I hope that you don’t need them, but if you do, that they help.
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1. Prepare Your Kids for the Death of a Loved One
We were lucky enough that we knew this was coming. Rather than avoiding talking with the kids about their grandparent’s death, we engaged them. We had them visit Nana and asked them if they wanted to draw her pictures or “write” her letters.
Cole really enjoyed this and spent that week drawing pictures for our ailing Nana. Evie joined in, mostly to copy Cole, but we still have the pictures and can remind them of this very special thing they did, and let them know how happy it made her.
2. Be Honest About Death with Your Preschoolers. Do NOT Lie.
Know how when you tell a lie and then another and then another and you can forget what the first lie was? Kids notice that stuff. So when explaining death to kids, don’t make up anything that might temporarily make this “easier.”
We also avoided using phrases that were vague. We didn’t “lose” Nana, Nana didn’t “pass” – we had to go with blunt terms: “Nana died” and “Nana is dead.” Followed by a LOT of talking about what death means. Our kids wanted to see Nana, to go to her house, and it was hard, but we had to consistently explain that Nana didn’t live there anymore and we couldn’t see her anymore.
3. Have Active Ways for Your Kids to Show Their Grief
We’re religious, so for us this had a bit of a Heaven spin, but it doesn’t have to. There are lots of concrete things kids can do to help them cope with a death in the family. We told our kids that when they were sad, even though they couldn’t see Nana, they could still talk to her. She may not talk back in the way we’re used to, but she’s listening, and sometimes if you try very carefully, you can hear her in your heart.
We said that whenever the kids are sad, they can come to us and we’ll tell them stories about Nana and can think of our favorite memories of her. We also have pictures of her that they can look at easily to remember.
And those drawings Cole loved? He still draws pictures for those we’ve lost sometimes, and we tell him that she is watching him draw and loves it.
4. Decide how you’re going to address the “afterlife.”
As I mentioned, we went the Heaven route, because we are religious and we felt our son was ready for it. I love the advice given here as well. Especially this: You can also let your child decide for herself about the afterlife. Say something like, “No one knows for sure. Some people think you go to heaven when you die, while others believe people come back on earth as different creatures. What do you think?”
Even if it’s not what you believe, it may provide comfort and a way of understanding and processing for your little one.
5. Be Ready for HARD Questions.
One night shortly after Nana died, we were putting Cole to bed. At this point he accepted that Nana was old and that sometimes old people die. But then he put together that on his birthday he would get a year older, and that eventually HE’D be old and die. And he did not want to die.
There has been nothing more heartbreaking in my life as a Mother as holding my crying son and assuring him he was not going to die. We tried to explain that he wasn’t going to be old for a long, long time. He finally was okay with this, but quickly realized that Mommy and Daddy were already older than him. And what about Grammy? Granco? All the other older adults in his life??
Chad and I looked back and forth with panicked eyes wondering how in the world we were going to explain mortality to this little boy when I blurted out: “You only die when you’re ready!”
In our situations, we were lucky, and yes, there are situations where this may contradict the honesty route. But for us, it didn’t. Uncle Seth had fought cancer for a long time and was “ready.” Nana was “ready.” We explained that they were ready, and that brought him a lot of comfort. If he worried that he was going to die someday we would respond, “Are you ready?” And he’d say, “Nope!” “Then it’s not something we need to worry about today.” For now, that seems to have stuck and is still something that Cole holds as Truth.
Unfortunately, helping your preschooler process death doesn’t make the talk itself any easier, though I wish it did. But for us, having a plan about how to help our kids grieve saved us from some additional grief ourselves. Above all, shower them with lots of love, allow them to express their grief, and try to answer their questions as best you can in a kid-friendly way.
Like any other phase, the “teaching kids about death” phase will pass, hopefully leaving your kids a bit stronger and a bit wiser when it does.